Laird Cregar’s is a sad story. A brilliant character actor, Cregar died in December of 1944 as a result of a crash diet that most likely included amphetamines. Cregar shed approximately 100 pounds in a short space of time in an attempt to reinvent himself. Reinvention is a hard business, and no more so than in the studio-controlled Hollywood of the ’40s. Firmly established as a towering, 300-pound, sympathetic (and often childlike) heavy, Cregar’s notion that he could shed his tonnage, get plastic surgery, and reinvent himself as a romantic leading man was delusional.
Hangover Square is a follow-up of sorts to The Lodger (1944), in which Cregar played a highly fictionalized version of Jack the Ripper. Both films were directed by John Brahm, and both feature sympathetic depictions of mentally ill characters who are compelled to kill. In Hangover Square, Cregar plays a composer named George Harvey Bone, a man who is struggling to complete his masterpiece (an effective if not totally convincing concerto composed by Bernard Herrmann, who also composed the film’s incidental music). However, Bone suffers from a bizarre condition that causes him to black out when he hears loud, discordant noises. In these fugue states he may or may not be committing murders. His energy and creativity are reinvigorated, however, when he meets a beautiful singer, played by Linda Darnell. Unsurprisingly, she leads him on and then does him wrong, which frays his last shred of sanity to the breaking point.
Hangover Square was based on a novel by Patrick Hamilton. The novel was published in 1941 and took place in the late ’30s. I’ve never read it, but apparently it’s a black comedy, and there’s a lot of thematic material about the rise of fascism in Europe. Not much of that stuff made it into the film. Originally the film was supposed to be set in the present day, but it was changed to the late Victorian era, presumably to capitalize on the success Brahm and Cregar had had with The Lodger. Both films are very good, and worth seeing, but Hangover Square is more of a mess than its predecessor. Herrmann’s score, as well as the music he writes that’s meant to be composed by Bone, makes the film feel very contemporary, and the Victorian setting isn’t handled very well. What Hangover Square does have going for it, besides Cregar’s performance, are a couple of incredibly striking scenes, both involving fire, that will stick with a lot of viewers.
It’s a shame that Cregar died when he did. He hadn’t even hit 30 when he passed away (although he could play much older). Even in minor roles he always made an impression. Had he lived, would he have been the gay (or at least gayish) Orson Welles? We’ll never know. In his last role, he’s not what anyone would call “svelte,” but the weight he had lost is noticeable. He appears diminished, haunted, and on the verge of being destroyed. It’s a masterful performance in a pretty good film, and one worth seeing.